Townies flock to join the farmers' union

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The Independent Online

No industry has been given more advice about how to fight a crisis than the farming sector. Diversify away from crops and cattle, said the Government; try running bed and breakfasts, suggested their own union. But now all the advice has come full circle: you don't even need to be a farmer to be a member of the National Farmers' Union.

No industry has been given more advice about how to fight a crisis than the farming sector. Diversify away from crops and cattle, said the Government; try running bed and breakfasts, suggested their own union. But now all the advice has come full circle: you don't even need to be a farmer to be a member of the National Farmers' Union.

Non-farmers now make up more than 50 per cent of the NFU and to join you need have no stronger connection to the farming world than a passing interest in the environment. The NFU has 75,000 "countryside" members, an affiliation that gives them access to subsidised car insurance and a range of financial and legal services.

At a time when farm incomes have dropped to their lowest levels for 30 years - to an average of just £140 a week - the NFU is going from strength to strength. The union's published accounts show assets of £51m while its sister financial services organisation has assets of £866m. It is also planning a new television advertising campaign that will feature celebrity members of the NFU in an effort to recruit even more non-farming members.

But the buoyant state of the NFU has attracted criticism from beef farmers, who have accused the union of failing to support the industry during its greatest hour of need. They say the NFU has concentrated too much on its own affairs, and point to the union's plush headquarters in Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of London's West End as symptomatic of a union that is geared towards the disposable income of non-farmers rather than the hard-pressed rank and file membership.

The NFU has 750 staff, 130 of them in Shaftesbury Avenue and runs another office in Brussels. Critics say that the union needs to slim down, perhaps moving its main offices to a cheaper location outside London. They criticise the purchase, with a third party, of its London premises this year for £15.5m. The 75,000 NFU countryside members now make up 55 per cent of the total membership, compared with just 60,000 full-time farmers. At its peak, the NFU boasted 100,000 farmer members, though this has dropped drastically as large numbers have quit the industry. In the past year alone, 5,000 have cancelled their membership.

NFU countryside membership costs £39.50 a year, compared with £90 for a farmer with a small landholding and more than £1,000 for large farm owners. While this subscription does not buy political representation, members receive a monthly magazine, access to rural and legal helplines for matters from drawing up wills to advice on straying livestock. The general criterion for membership is ownership of land "bigger than a garden but smaller than a farm" but in practice a professed interest in the countryside is enough to enable anyone with an urban postcode to join.

The countryside membership is managed by NFU Services Ltd, jointly owned by the NFU and NFU Mutual, a sister organisation that offers insurance for cars, houses, pets, and provides pension investments and life assurance. NFU Mutual has enjoyed a growth in membership of 30 per cent this year and has launched successful advertising campaigns on television and in print. A spokeswoman for the NFU said the decision to diversify was taken as the crisis in farming intensified: "We have extended our portfolio because the population of the countryside is changing. We are losing a lot of farmers from the industry and to ensure that we provide the level of services to our members we have to look at other means of income."

But others are unhappy with the new direction. Thousands of farmers are in financial trouble and many claim that they are not getting value for money from their NFU subscriptions. Farmers for Action UK, a breakaway group chaired by David Handley, a diary farmer from Llangoven, near Monmouth, this year adopted a more formal committee structure, while Richard Haddock, a cattle and arable farmer from Devon, launched the first grassroots challenge for the presidency in the NFU's 92-year history. Mr Haddock feels the union must do more to cater for the basic needs of its members: "Members feel that many people go to London, get on a committee and get Londonised. A lot of the leadership gets tied up in politics. They need to keep the minimum number of essential people there and get the rest out to see the problems the countryside is going through.

"The industry needs help today, not in three years' time. The NFU is too busy fire-fighting and I don't see it having a vision of what the industry will look like in 10 years. In the south-west we are using venture capital to run businesses to get the cattle from the farm gate to the dinner plate. The NFU and NFU Mutual need to be more involved in that because the banks are seeing the way the industry is going and will take cold commercial decisions not to help us. It makes good sense for the NFU to attract non-farmers but we need to use their political clout."

Martin Haworth, director of policy for the NFU, rejected the claims. "Countryside members have no democratic rights and it's untrue to say we contribute resources to them. The reverse is true. By attracting this additional membership we have been able to increase the resources available to spend on representing farmers."

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